In Search of The Unknown

Robert W. Chambers


The week passed quickly for me, leaving but few definite impressions. As I look back to it now I can see the long stretch of beach burning in the fierce sunlight, the endless meadows, with the glimmer of water in the distance, the dunes, the twisted cedars, the leagues of scintillating ocean, rocking, rocking, always rocking. In the starlit nights the curlew came in from the sand-bars by twos and threes; I could hear their querulous call as I lay in bed thinking. All day long the little ring-necks whistled from the shore. The plover answered them from distant, lonely inland pools. The great white gulls drifted like feathers upon the sea. 
          “One morning towards the end of the week, I, strolling along the dunes, came upon Frisby. He was bill-posting. I caught him red-handed. 
          “‘This,’ said I, ‘must stop. Do you understand, Mr. Frisby?’ 
          “He stepped back from his work, laying his head on one side, considering first me, then the bill that he had pasted on one of our big boilers. 
          “‘Don’t you like the color?’ he asked. ‘It goes well on them black boilers.’ 
          “‘Color! No, I don’t like the color, either. Can’t you understand that there are some people in the world who object to seeing patent-medicine advertisements scattered over a landscape?’ 
          “‘Hey?’ he said, perplexed. 
          “‘Will you kindly remove that advertisement?’ I persisted. 
          “‘’Too late,’ said Frisby; ‘it’s sot.’ 
          “I was too disgusted to speak, but my disgust turned to anger when I perceived that, as far as the eye could reach, our boilers, lying from three to four hundred feet apart, were ablaze with yellow-and-red posters extolling the ‘Eureka Liver Pill Company.’ 
          “‘It don’t cost ‘em nothin’,’ said Frisby, cheerfully; ‘I done it fur the fun of it. Purty, ain’t it?’ 
          “‘They are Professor Holroyd’s boilers,’ I said, subduing a desire to beat Frisby with my telescope. ‘Wait until Miss Holroyd sees this work.’ 
          “‘Don’t she like yeller and red?’ he demanded, anxiously. 
          “‘You’ll find out,’ said I. 
          “Frisby gaped at his handiwork and then at his yellow dog. After a moment he mechanically spat on a clam-shell and requested Davy to ‘sic’ it. 
          “‘Can’t you comprehend that you have ruined our pleasure in the landscape?’ I asked, more mildly. 
          “‘I’ve got some green bills,’ said Frisby; ‘I kin stick ‘em over the yeller ones—’ 
          “‘Confound it,’ said I, ‘it isn’t the color!’ 
          “‘Then,’ observed Frisby, ‘you don’t like them pills. I’ve got some bills of the “Cropper Automobile” and a few of “Bagley, the Gents’ Tailor”—’ 
          “‘Frisby,’ said I, ‘use them all—paste the whole collection over your dog and yourself—then walk off the cliff.’ 
          “He sullenly unfolded a green poster, swabbed the boiler with paste, laid the upper section of the bill upon it, and plastered the whole bill down with a thwack of his brush. As I walked away I heard him muttering. 
          “Next day Daisy was so horrified that I promised to give Frisby an ultimatum. I found him with Freda, gazing sentimentally at his work, and I sent him back to the shop in a hurry, telling Freda at the same time that she could spend her leisure in providing Mr. Frisby with sand, soap, and a scrubbing-brush. Then I walked on to my post of observation. 
          “I watched until sunset. Daisy came with her father to hear my report, but there was nothing to tell, and we three walked slowly back to the house. 
          “In the evenings the professor worked on his volumes, the click of his type-writer sounding faintly behind his closed door. Daisy and I played chess sometimes; sometimes we played hearts. I don’t remember that we ever finished a game of either—we talked too much. 
          “Our discussions covered every topic of interest: we argued upon politics; we skimmed over literature and music; we settled international differences; we spoke vaguely of human brotherhood. I say we slighted no subject of interest—I am wrong; we never spoke of love. 
          “Now, love is a matter of interest to ten people out of ten. Why it was that it did not appear to interest us is as interesting a question as love itself. We were young, alert, enthusiastic, inquiring. We eagerly absorbed theories concerning any curious phenomena in nature, as intellectual cocktails to stimulate discussion. And yet we did not discuss love. I do not say that we avoided it. No; the subject was too completely ignored for even that. And yet we found it very difficult to pass an hour separated. The professor noticed this, and laughed at us. We were not even embarrassed. 
          “Sunday passed in pious contemplation of the ocean. Daisy read a little in her prayer-book, and the professor threw a cloth over his type-writer and strolled up and down the sands. He may have been lost in devout abstraction; he may have been looking for footprints. As for me, my mind was very serene, and I was more than happy. Daisy read to me a little for my soul’s sake, and the professor came up and said something cheerful. He also examined the magazine of my Winchester. 
          “That night, too, Daisy took her guitar to the sands and sang one or two Basque hymns. Unlike us, the Basques do not take their pleasures sadly. One of their pleasures is evidently religion. 
          “The big moon came up over the dunes and stared at the sea until the surface of every wave trembled with radiance. A sudden stillness fell across the world; the wind died out; the foam ran noiselessly across the beach; the cricket’s rune was stilled. 
          “I leaned back, dropping one hand upon the sand. It touched another hand, soft and cool. 
          “After a while the other hand moved slightly, and I found that my own had closed above it. Presently one finger stirred a little—only a little—for our fingers were interlocked. 
          “On the shore the foam-froth bubbled and winked and glimmered in the moonlight. A star fell from the zenith, showering the night with incandescent dust. 
          “If our fingers lay interlaced beside us, her eyes were calm and serene as always, wide open, fixed upon the depths of a dark sky. And when her father rose and spoke to us, she did not withdraw her hand. 
          “‘Is it late?’ she asked, dreamily. 
          “‘It is midnight, little daughter.’ 
          “I stood up, still holding her hand, and aided her to rise. And when, at the door, I said good-night, she turned and looked at me for a little while in silence, then passed into her room slowly, with head still turned towards me. 
          “All night long I dreamed of her; and when the east whitened, I sprang up, the thunder of the ocean in my ears, the strong sea-wind blowing into the open window. 
          “‘She is asleep,’ I thought, and I leaned from the window and peered out into the east. 
          “The sea called to me, tossing its thousand arms; the soaring gulls, dipping, rising, wheeling above the sandbar, screamed and clamored for a playmate. I slipped into my bathing-suit, dropped from the window upon the soft sand, and in a moment had plunged head foremost into the surf, swimming beneath the waves towards the open sea. 
          “Under the tossing ocean the voice of the waters was in my ears—a low, sweet voice, intimate, mysterious. Through singing foam and broad, green, glassy depths, by whispering sandy channels atrail with sea-weed, and on, on, out into the vague, cool sea, I sped, rising to the top, sinking, gliding. Then at last I flung myself out of water, hands raised, and the clamor of the gulls filled my ears. 
          “As I lay, breathing fast, drifting on the sea, far out beyond the gulls I saw a flash of white, and an arm was lifted, signalling me. 
          “‘Daisy!’ I called. 
          “A clear hail came across the water, distinct on the sea-wind, and at the same instant we raised our hands and moved towards each other. 
          “How we laughed as we met in the sea! The white dawn came up out of the depths, the zenith turned to rose and ashes. 
          “And with the dawn came the wind—a great sea-wind, fresh, aromatic, that hurled our voices back into our throats and lifted the sheeted spray above our heads. Every wave, crowned with mist, caught us in a cool embrace, cradled us, and slipped away, only to leave us to another wave, higher, stronger, crested with opalescent glory, breathing incense. 
          “We turned together up the coast, swimming lightly side by side, but our words were caught up by the winds and whirled into the sky. 
          “We looked up at the driving clouds; we looked out upon the pallid waste of waters, but it was into each other’s eyes we looked, wondering, wistful, questioning the reason of sky and sea. And there in each other’s eyes we read the mystery, and we knew that earth and sky and sea were created for us alone. 
          “Drifting on by distant sands and dunes, her white fingers touching mine, we spoke, keying our tones to the wind’s vast harmony. And we spoke of love. 
          “Gray and wide as the limitless span of the sky and the sea, the winds gathered from the world’s ends to bear us on; but they were not familiar winds; for now, along the coast, the breakers curled and showed a million fangs, and the ocean stirred to its depths, uneasy, ominous, and the menace of its murmur drew us closer as we moved. 
          “Where the dull thunder and the tossing spray warned us from sunken reefs, we heard the harsh challenges of gulls; where the pallid surf twisted in yellow coils of spume above the bar, the singing sands murmured of treachery and secrets of lost souls agasp in the throes of silent undertows. 
          “But there was a little stretch of beach glimmering through the mountains of water, and towards this we turned, side by side. Around us the water grew warmer; the breath of the following waves moistened our cheeks; the water itself grew gray and strange about us. 
          “‘We have come too far,’ I said; but she only answered: 
          “‘Faster, faster! I am afraid!’ The water was almost hot now; its aromatic odor filled our lungs. 
          “‘The Gulf loop!’ I muttered. ‘Daisy, shall I help you?’ 
          “‘No. Swim—close by me! Oh-h! Dick—’ 
          “Her startled cry was echoed by another—a shrill scream, unutterably horrible—and a great bird flapped from the beach, splashing and beating its pinions across the water with a thundering noise. 
          “Out across the waves it blundered, rising little by little from the water, and now, to my horror, I saw another monstrous bird swinging in the air above it, squealing as it turned on its vast wings. Before I could speak we touched the beach, and I half lifted her to the shore. 
          “‘Quick!’ I repeated. ‘We must not wait.’ 
          “Her eyes were dark with fear, but she rested a hand on my shoulder, and we crept up among the dune-grasses and sank down by the point of sand where the rough shelter stood, surrounded by the iron-ringed piles. 
          “She lay there, breathing fast and deep, dripping with spray. I had no power of speech left, but when I rose wearily to my knees and looked out upon the water my blood ran cold. Above the ocean, on the breast of the roaring wind, three enormous birds sailed, turning and wheeling among one another; and below, drifting with the gray stream of the Gulf loop, a colossal bulk lay half submerged—a gigantic lizard, floating belly upward. 
          “Then Daisy crept kneeling to my side and touched me, trembling from head to foot. 
          “‘I know,’ I muttered. ‘I must run back for the rifle.’ 
          “‘And—and leave me?’ 
          “I took her by the hand, and we dragged ourselves through the wire-grass to the open end of a boiler lying in the sand. 
          “She crept in on her hands and knees, and called to me to follow. 
          “‘You are safe now,’ I cried. ‘I must go back for the rifle.’ 
          “‘The birds may—may attack you.’ 
          “‘If they do I can get into one of the other boilers,’ I said. ‘Daisy, you must not venture out until I come back. You won’t, will you?’ 
          “‘No-o,’ she whispered, doubtfully. 
          “‘Good-bye,’ she answered, but her voice was very small and still. 
          “‘Good-bye,’ I said again. I was kneeling at the mouth of the big iron tunnel; it was dark inside and I could not see her, but, before I was conscious of it, her arms were around my neck and we had kissed each other. 
          “I don’t remember how I went away. When I came to my proper senses I was swimming along the coast at full speed, and over my head wheeled one of the birds, screaming at every turn. 
          “The intoxication of that innocent embrace, the close impress of her arms around my neck, gave me a strength and recklessness that neither fear nor fatigue could subdue. The bird above me did not even frighten me. I watched it over my shoulder, swimming strongly, with the tide now aiding me, now stemming my course; but I saw the shore passing quickly, and my strength increased, and I shouted when I came in sight of the house, and scrambled up on the sand, dripping and excited. There was nobody in sight, and I gave a last glance up into the air where the bird wheeled, still screeching, and hastened into the house. Freda stared at me in amazement as I seized the rifle and shouted for the professor. 
          “‘He has just gone to town, with Captain McPeek in his wagon,’ stammered Freda. 
          “‘What!’ I cried. ‘Does he know where his daughter is?’ 
          “‘Miss Holroyd is asleep—not?’ gasped Freda. 
          “‘Where’s Frisby?’ I cried, impatiently. 
          “‘Yimmie?’ quavered Freda. 
          “‘Yes, Jimmie; isn’t there anybody here? Good Heavens! where’s that man in the shop?’ 
          “‘He also iss gone,’ said Freda, shedding tears, ‘to buy papier-mache. Yimmie, he iss gone to post bills.’ 
          “I waited to hear no more, but swung my rifle over my shoulder, and, hanging the cartridge-belt across my chest, hurried out and up the beach. The bird was not in sight. 
          “I had been running for perhaps a minute when, far up on the dunes, I saw a yellow dog rush madly through a clump of sweet-bay, and at the same moment a bird soared past, rose, and hung hovering just above the thicket. Suddenly the bird swooped; there was a shriek and a yelp from the cur, but the bird gripped it in one claw and beat its wings upon the sand, striving to rise. Then I saw Frisby—paste, bucket, and brush raised—fall upon the bird, yelling lustily. The fierce creature relaxed its talons, and the dog rushed on, squeaking with terror. The bird turned on Frisby and sent him sprawling on his face, a sticky mass of paste and sand. But this did not end the struggle. The bird, croaking horridly, flew at the prostrate bill-poster, and the sand whirled into a pillar above its terrible wings. Scarcely knowing what I was about, I raised my rifle and fired twice. A scream echoed each shot, and the bird rose heavily in a shower of sand; but two bullets were embedded in that mass of foul feathers, and I saw the wires and scarlet tape uncoiling on the sand at my feet. In an instant I seized them and passed the ends around a
cedar-tree, hooking the clasps tight. Then I cast one swift glance upward, where the bird wheeled, screeching, anchored like a kite to the pallium wires; and I hurried on across the dunes, the shells cutting my feet and the bushes tearing my wet swimming-suit, until I dripped with blood from shoulder to ankle. Out in the ocean the carcass of the thermosaurus floated, claws outspread, belly glistening in the gray light, and over him circled two birds. As I reached the shelter I knelt and fired into the mass of scales, and at my first shot a horrible thing occurred—the lizard-like head writhed, the slitted yellow eyes sliding open from the film that covered them. A shudder passed across the undulating body, the great scaled belly heaved, and one leg feebly clawed at the air. 
          “The thing was still alive! 
          “Crushing back the horror that almost paralyzed my hands, I planted shot after shot into the quivering reptile, while it writhed and clawed, striving to turn over and dive; and at each shot the black blood spurted in long, slim jets across the water. And now Daisy was at my side, pale and determined, swiftly clasping each tape-marked wire to the iron rings in the circle around us. Twice I filled the magazine from my belt, and twice I poured streams of steel-tipped bullets into the scaled mass, twisting and shuddering on the sea. Suddenly the birds steered towards us. I felt the wind from their vast wings. I saw the feathers erect, vibrating. I saw the spread claws outstretched, and I struck furiously at them, crying to Daisy to run into the iron shelter. Backing, swinging my clubbed rifle, I retreated, but I tripped across one of the taut pallium wires, and in an instant the hideous birds were on me, and the bone in my forearm snapped like a pipe-stem at a blow from their wings. Twice I struggled to my knees, blinded with blood, confused, almost fainting; then I fell again, rolling into the mouth of the iron boiler. 
          “When I struggled back to consciousness Daisy knelt silently beside me, while Captain McPeek and Professor Holroyd bound up my shattered arm, talking excitedly. The pain made me faint and dizzy. I tried to speak and could not. At last they got me to my feet and into the wagon, and Daisy came, too, and crouched beside me, wrapped in oilskins to her eyes. Fatigue, lack of food, and excitement had combined with wounds and broken bones to extinguish the last atom of strength in my body; but my mind was clear enough to understand that the trouble was over and the thermosaurus safe. 
          “I heard McPeek say that one of the birds that I had anchored to a cedar-tree had torn loose from the bullets and had winged its way heavily out to sea. The professor answered: ‘Yes, the ekaf-bird; the others were ool-ylliks. I’d have given my right arm to have secured them.’ Then for a time I heard no more; but the jolting of the wagon over the dunes roused me to keenest pain, and I held out my right hand to Daisy. She clasped it in both of hers, and kissed it again and again. 
          “There is little more to add, I think. Professor Bruce Stoddard’s scientific pamphlet will be published soon, to be followed by Professor Holroyd’s sixteen volumes. In a few days the stuffed and mounted thermosaurus will be placed on free public exhibition in the arena of Madison Square Garden, the only building in the city large enough to contain the body of this immense winged reptile.” 
          The young man hesitated, looking long and earnestly at Miss Barrison. 
          “Did you marry her?” she asked, softly. 
          “You wouldn’t believe it,” said the young man, earnestly—“you wouldn’t believe it, after all that happened, if I should tell you that she married Professor Bruce Stoddard, of Columbia—would you?” 
          “Yes, I would,” said Miss Barrison. “You never can tell what a girl will do.” 
          “That story of yours,” I said, “is to me the most wonderful and valuable contribution to nature study that it has ever been my fortune to listen to. You are fitted to write; it is your sacred mission to produce. Are you going to?” 
          “I am writing,” said the young man, quietly, “a nature book. Sir Peter Grebe’s magnificent monograph on the speckled titmouse inspired me. But nature study is not what I have chosen as my life’s mission.” 
          He looked dreamily across at Miss Barrison. “No, not natural phenomena,” he repeated, “but unnatural phenomena. What Professor Hyssop has done for Columbia, I shall attempt to do for Harvard. In fact, I have already accepted the chair of Psychical Phenomena at Cambridge.” 
          I gazed upon him with intense respect. 
          “A personal experience revealed to me my life’s work,” he went on, thoughtfully stroking his blond mustache. “If Miss Barrison would care to hear it—” 
          “Please tell it,” she said, sweetly. 
          “I shall have to relate it clothed in that artificial garb known as literary style,” he explained, deprecatingly. 
          “It doesn’t matter,” I said, “I never noticed any style at all in your story of the thermosaurus.” 
          He smiled gratefully, and passed his hand over his face; a far-away expression came into his eyes, and he slowly began, hesitating, as though talking to himself: